Tone in Writing

This topic was inspired by a recent email that I received from a student. Essentially, the student was concerned about a missing homework grade after an absence, which is a completely valid concern. However, the issue was not with her inquiry, but with her tone in the email. In literature, tone is defined as the author, narrator, or speaker’s attitude toward a subject or person. When we write, we establish tone using diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure, including punctuation). Unlike one’s tone of voice, which is fairly distinguishable, someone’s tone in writing, or even via text message, can be vastly misinterpreted. It is this miscommunication that can turn an email into an issue.

Things for students to consider regarding tone:

  • Keep the subject line clear and specific. Your recipient should ideally understand the general point of your message from seeing the subject line. For example, the subject line for an email to your teacher about a homework assignment should include the specific class period and name/date of the homework assignment if possible“AP Chemistry 3/12 homework”
  • Consider the purpose of your email. If you are emailing to ask a quick question or to get clarification on something, be direct. Once you have addressed the recipient, get straight to the point and ask your specific question. A succinct email is much more likely to get a swift response than an email that is long and drawn out.
  • Know the difference between phrasing a question, a request, or a demand. A question should obviously have the appropriate “?” punctuation. A request should ideally include polite phrases such as could you, please, and thank you, etc. To demand something in an email, however, is rarely a good idea, unless the circumstance warrants a more severe or urgent tone.
  • Read the message or email aloud to yourself with a neutral tone before sending it. If it sounds harsh, demanding, or accusatory you should rephrase the message so that it is received in a more positive manner.
  • Avoid overuse of punctuation, especially exclamation points and question marks. These can inadvertently come off to the recipient as overly dramatic, aggressive, harsh, etc.
  • Do not include emoji’s or abbreviations or slang when corresponding with your teacher, professor, superior, or boss. An overly casual approach could be mistaken as disrespectful, careless, or immature.
  • Draft a message first and send later if your email is provoked by anger, disappointment, or frustration. Often times, in an emotional moment, our words, even when written, can be impulsive or emotionally charged. If you feel that you might be furiously dictating while you type your message, it is probably best to save that email as a draft and return to it a few hours later. Once emotions have settled, your wording will have softened.

Specific “DON’Ts”

  • Don’t assume that your teacher, or whomever the email is intended for, will recognize your personal email address. If your email address does not include your full name, be sure to add a signature or salutation that includes your first and last name.
  • Consider the actual content of your email address, especially when completing college applications and job applications. If the email address doesn’t sound professional, consider creating a new address for professional correspondence that includes your name.
  • Be careful with the “reply all” button, especially if you do not know some of the cc’d recipients. Consider responding just to the sender and then circling back to the rest of the email chain.
  • Know that “deleted” doesn’t mean erased forever. Deleting an email, whether is is one that you have sent or received, does not mean that it no longer exists. As we have seen all too often, texts and emails can come back to haunt us down the road, so it is very important to think carefully about what you are trying to say and how you should say it.